GMJ reviews: Masque of the Worms

Running a D&D game is hard. You have a lot to manage both before and during the session, and it is tough to do it, week after week, entirely on your own. Sometimes game day rolls around and you just don’t have it in you to create something amazing entirely from scratch.

Masque of the Worms by Kelsey Dionne of the Arcane Library

Enter the pre-written adventure module.

In decades past, D&D’s publishers sold short, pre-written adventures that could be finished in one or two game sessions; a self-contained adventure the perfect length to give the DM a much-needed breather. These days, official adventure modules have been replaced by pre-written campaigns, which, while useful in their own right, can’t be easily added to an ongoing campaign. Thankfully, third-party publishers (like WatcherDM!) have stepped in to fill that important niche. Today, we’ll be looking at one such adventure:

Masque of the Worms.

Masque of the Worms is a 1st-level adventure for D&D 5e, and compatible with other systems (I have run it in both D&D and Quest), written by Kelsey Dionne of the Arcane Library. In this Edgar-Allan-Poe-inspired tale, players are entrusted by a local baron to find his wife, who has failed to return from a masquerade ball at a nearby count’s estate.

When the heroes arrive at the estate, they find it silent, and a brief investigation of the outdoors reveals the guests entered but did not leave the house. Once inside, they piece together the story of a nobleman, stricken by an infectious malady of the mind and driven by jealousy to murder his father and bring forth hell-born fiends into the natural world, while fighting the corpses of the slain and monstrous worms.

Only three people have survived the massacre: a young girl hiding in the servants’ quarters, a drunken nobleman bleeding out in the entry hall, and the count himself, mad and babbling in the master bedroom. The baroness is dead, and the raving count is spared only because the fiends feel kinship with the young patricide. Even if the heroes drive out the fiends and deal with the count, they are left with the unenviable task of telling a husband that his beloved wife is dead. What happens next is left up to DM discretion, whether grief pulls the baron down into a murderous madness of his own, the fiendish infection spreads, or a deeper darkness lies behind the story’s tragic events.

Everything You Need

The presentation of this adventure is phenomenal. Kelsey provides details of the rooms and characters in a simple and straightforward manner so that no encounter exceeds a single page, markedly reducing the amount of time a DM must spend flipping through pages. It seems like a small thing, but information presentation can make or break a pre-written adventure, and this adventure nails it. Its formatting is leagues above what you’ll find in most third-party adventures, and surpasses even official D&D material. To help DMs prepare, Kelsey provides a YouTube walkthrough in which she goes through the adventure room by room, handily taking the guesswork out of interpreting the writer’s intentions. Kelsey also provides simple reference cards of the adventure’s monsters and treasure, further cutting down on DM busywork. If all that was not enough, there are also maps, properly sized and labeled for virtual tabletop, or to be printed as reference, in both DM- and player-facing formats. All this makes for an adventure that you can run with just the materials included, without half a dozen other books on hand. At $3, or even less if you get it as part of a bundle, it’s an incredible deal.

Tragedy and Terror

Any prospective DMs ought to keep the following in mind: the adventure is quite grim, with the death of family members as a frequent theme, and a happy ending is impossible. The best the PCs can do is recover the baroness’s body, whose death may lead her grief-stricken husband to become a cold and cruel ruler. It works well in a tragic or serious campaign, but heroic or lighthearted groups may find it jarring, especially if the players are unused to partial successes and failure.

When I have run Masque, I have on numerous occasions chosen midway through a session to have the baroness still alive, trapped in the cellar by monsters, as I realized the dark ending would not be right for the group at hand. The short adventure easily supports these types of tweaks (although this resolution does put a kink in the plot of Valley of the Gilded Tower, the follow-up adventure… but more on that another time).

Final Thought

The other thing to keep in mind is that the map shows only encounter rooms, which is good for gameplay but bad for immersion. If the map is taken as a literal representation of the space, it creates an adventure taking place in a largely windowless single-floor home with only six rooms and no hallways or washrooms. If you plan to use the map (and I encourage you to, as maps of any kind are invaluable for site-based adventures), I recommend narrating the heroes passage through the interstitial spaces, the halls, and stairways of this haunted house, with their peeling wallpaper, disturbing paintings, and looming suits of armor. Make it clear to the players that the map is a guide, not an exact representation of the mansion.

The Verdict?

I’ve run Masque of the Worms about a dozen times, and it works great as either an isolated one-shot or as the start to a supernatural horror campaign containing themes of madness, grief, and murder (did someone say Ravenloft?). For the right group and the right game, I give it my top recommendation. -GMJ

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